Andrea Young, Sweet Vegan founder, and her chocolate creations. Photo: Chenli Yi
Andrea Young, founder of Sweet Vegan chocolates, dishes on turning her passion into a second career and the inspiration behind her dairy-free delights
by Marc B. Boucai
A Midwestern transplant who began her career as an interior designer, Andrea Young didn't come to New York City to pursue her passion for cooking. But after enrolling in classes at The Natural Kitchen Cooking School in Princeton, N.J. and becoming a private chef to acclaimed artist Peter Max, Young took the leap and returned to the kitchen, a place where she'd found warmth and joy as a child. Young launched her business, Sweet Vegan, in the area of food creation she enjoys most: chocolate-making.
After months of experimentation, Young hit on two styles of truffles to start out with: Dreamy bites, velvety rich ganache, and fruity bites, a combination of chocolate and raw fruit. She received a boon when she was accepted this year into the small business program run by Columbia University and the Harlem SBDC (Small Business Development Center).
Young spoke to Straus News about healthy living, making an important product with high-quality ingredients, and why vegan sweets can be dastardly delicious.Where are you from?
I grew up in Indianapolis, Ind. [and] it was my grandma, Georgia May, who was my inspiration. She taught me to cook with integrity and joy … from cutting up a whole chicken to making egg noodles from scratch. She was all about aesthetics. I came from a single parent family and was the oldest daughter of five children. Financially, we struggled to get food on the table. My grandma was the tour de force of all things beautiful. When I came home from school, I worked with my grandma to get food on the table. [Cooking] is where we really bonded …it wasn't [just] about getting the food right, but about the warmth, love and connection that only food can bring.How did you arrive in New York?
I always knew I was going to leave Indiana … I started [in New York City] as a nanny. I was living in midtown Manhattan and enrolled and completed my studies in interior architecture at Parsons School of Design.How did you get into making vegan sweets?
When my mom came and made a little visit to New York for a family graduation at Columbia University, she took a fall and fractured her pelvis. The doctor said she was malnourished, and she came to recuperate at my apartment. I needed to get an assistant to help her, but I wasn't sure she would know about nutrition. [I brought] in a chef to my home one a day week, [and] the chef and I would cook together, and my mom would be the unofficial taster. This chef [Christine Waltermyer] was vegan, and she introduced us to a vegan lifestyle. She started The Natural Kitchen Cooking School, and I enrolled, never thinking I would ever do it professionally.
And [then] the interior design industry was starting to crumble, and I was asked to only work four days a week. I had extra time on my hands, [and began] teaching cooking. Also, I was able to be a private chef to [artist] Peter Max and his wife Mary Max for two days a week for the next four years. And Peter is a chocoholic!What are challenges and what is exciting about balancing making chocolates with entrepreneurship?
In 2016, I started looking into trademarking and forming a LLC. Everywhere I went I shared Sweet Vegan chocolates, and I got people's opinions and feedback. The important thing is being open to ideas and never being timid. I was accepted into the community-based Hot Bread Kitchen in Harlem, where I call home. Meeting my fellow entrepreneurs and sharing ideas and problems with solutions is critical. Building my brand awareness with social media and getting that “first-taste” is the challenge. One of the exciting things is fulfilling the desires of customers that are lactose, gluten, soy [free] and have nut sensitivities. My joy comes from giving a quality chocolate and getting the ah-ha moment, “Can this really be vegan?”What are your favorite places on the Upper West Side to find food and local goodies that aligned to your business' values?
One of my all-time favorites is Cafe Candle West on Broadway and 89th Street. They are not only a plant-based restaurant, but the [food] presentation goes back to my heart and creativity. I love to shop at Gary Null's Uptown Whole Foods on Broadway. It has the integrity and the type of quality I believe in.Tell us more about your business: Where can we get your chocolates? How big has the operation grown?
Right now I am in five different stores [including] Food Liberation and High Vibes on the Lower East Side. I was just accepted into Westerly Natural Market on the West Side and Foodcellar Market in Queens. All the chocolates are handmade with carefully sourced ingredients. Soy, nut, and gluten-free! I keep my product as clean and rich and flavorful as possible. Not all chocolates are created equal.Anything else you want to tell us about your amazing vegan truffles?
Sweet Vegan embodies the spirit of New York: hard-working, ambitious and high-energy!